Thursday, December 16, 2010


MAKE your Christmas a little different this time by making it a Kapampangan Christmas.

Forget chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and fill your noche buena table with native fare like lagang pasku (with old-style Chinese ham), asadung manuk, bringhi, tsokolate king batirul, panara (which nobody makes anymore) and an assortment of suman from Cabalantian.

If you hang a lantern outside your window, make sure it's a Kapampangan parul (lantern), which means it's either the multi-colored San Fernando parul or the white variety made in Angeles City.

You may also want to get yourself a Paskung Kapampangan CD; make sure you turn up the volume when you play it so that your neighbors will hear it, too. I am saying this not because our Center for Kapampangan Studies is the CD's producer, but because all the songs are original, really good and evocative of a true Kapampangan Christmas.

If you attend the simbang bengi (dawn Mass), try to attend the ones held in Mabalacat, where the parish choir still performs the pastorella, a colonial-era collection of church hymns sung only during this time of year.

When I was a child, the pastorella were the only motivation I had to wake up at dawn and go to Mass. There's no Kyrie like the Kyrie of the pastorella, no Gloria like the Gloria of the pastorella, and no Agnus Dei like the Agnus Dei of the pastorella--all performed with violins and operatic flourish that make you think our ancestors composed them that way to keep drowsy churchgoers awake.

Mabalacat is the only place in the Philippines where they keep the pastorella alive.

It is also one of only three or four towns in the Kapampangan region where they still have the lubenas, a unique and quaint tradition where a procession of lit lanterns is held for the nine consecutive nights before Christmas (December 16 to 24), which is also the same period for the simbang bengi.

In fact, the reason people do the lubenas is the same reason they do the simbang bengi--to mortify the flesh in preparation for the nativity of Christ. It's no easy task, after all, to stay up late for the lubenas and then wake up early for the simbang bengi. (Our Kapampangan ancestors learned this from their strict Spanish cura parroco.)

On the night of December 24, the place to be is again Mabalacat, for the assembly of all lubenas processions from as many as 20 barrios. You can imagine how the church patio will look like on Christmas Eve with hundreds of glittering, flickering lanterns of all sizes, shapes and colors. The event is called maitinis, and it's not done anywhere but Mabalacat.

And then of course, there's the Giant Lantern Festival (ligligan parul) of San Fernando. The sheer size of the lanterns is dumbfounding enough; what's even more amazing is the crude contraption that powers them, made of tin barrels, hairpins, masking tape and a spaghetti mesh of electric wires.

How this primitive mechanism produces the kaleidoscope of dancing lights on lanterns as big as houses is truly a wonder of Kapampangan ingenuity and imagination. We should all support this living treasure and make sure the rising costs (half a million pesos per lantern) do not kill it in the long run.

I wish, though, that they'd hold the festival in a more culturally appropriate venue, not some parking lot of a distant mall. When an activity is held in a commercial area, then that activity becomes a commercial activity, no longer a cultural one.

Remember that the giant lantern festival started over a hundred years ago as part of the lubenas in Bacolor (later moved to San Fernando along with the transfer of the provincial capital). It was held in the church patio because, well, it was a religious activity. Maybe it's time we should bring it back to its original venue.

If the cathedral patio is too small, they can probably spread the giant lanterns along the stretch of Consunji Street all the way to the capitol grounds so that the whole district lights up this Christmas and tourists will go to the town proper, not the mall on the boundary with Mexico.

On December 29, make sure you go to Betis for the Serenata, another charming Kapampangan folk tradition where two or three local brass bands try to outdo each other by alternately playing tunes until the wee hours. Some of the musical pieces they play come from classical Italian operas taught to them by the early Thomasites.

On New Year's Day, about two in the afternoon, go to Minalin town for the annual Aguman Sanduk cross-dressing festival. It's a festival unlike any other: farmers, fisherfolk and all the local tough guys wear their wives' or mothers' dresses (with matching wigs and lipstick) and parade in the streets.

It started in the 1930s as a dare among the menfolk; how it survived a world war, insurgency, and a volcanic eruption is a testament of the commitment of the townspeople of Minalin to preserve their cultural heritage.

Finally, the long Kapampangan Christmas season ends on January 6, feast of the Three Kings, which is also the climax of the kuraldal season of Sasmuan. Make sure you are there on that day: the mad dancing and gyrating that characterize this unique Kapampangan festival would make Obando and the Sinulog seem like a harmless grade-school folk dance.

The kuraldal is an ancient fertility dance which the Spanish chronicler Fray Gaspar de San Agustin described in 1698 as a ritual practiced in Sasmuan "since long ago."

While in Sasmuan, don't forget to buy pasalubong: their bite-sized bobotu is one-of-its-kind.
Have a merry Kapampangan Christmas!

Sunstar Pampanga (December, 2009)

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